Adam Scott (name changed) is waiting for me in the coffee shop in downtown Washington, a bright easy smile on his face as he stands to shake my hand. I think I detect a slight southern accent and timbre when he speaks, but it turns out he grew up in rural Pennsylvania. Just my imagination. And for nearly two hours we chat like old friends, even though this is our first meeting. There's a level in which I sense that we immediately connect, and like each other. It doesn't always happen, but it happens here.
And yet you wouldn't -- I wouldn't -- have imagined that from the conversation we have. First of all, Adam went to a small Christian college (he calls it an "evangelical college"), and that immediately puts some admittedly unfavourable thoughts in my mind. Yet he tells me how it taught him about certain values, among which is the breadth of vision to question the ways of Christians whom he thinks have closed their minds to so much.
Case in point, his own parents.
Through college, and now in his job, Adam has travelled the world (in fact he was to leave on another trip the afternoon we met), seen all kinds of people and situations. For one example, he says his travels have led him to question the general acceptance of poverty. He cannot understand his Christian friends who say to him: "You know what? I don't want to hear about it. Don't tell me about it." He wonders about such people. He also wonders to himself about the God he believes in profoundly, but who permits suffering and hatred. The only way he can explain it is to think that God gave man a free will, the ability to make choices: and therefore some choices will necessarily lead to suffering.
Second, Adam is strongly Republican. "I see a lot of intolerance in liberals," he says. "They are so ready to dismiss right-wingers as silly or crazy. They never will listen. On the right, they are much more tolerant and accepting, not so quick to label people."
I could tell him, and do tell him, different. Yet Adam does have a point that's worth thinking about. He mentions Ann Coulter as one of those who are not so quick to label people, and then speaks at length about Hilary Clinton.
And here's where he throws me. That very evening, I see Ann Coulter on a Fox show. Of Democrats who have proposed a non-binding House resolution to block sending more troops to Iraq, she says they are anti-Americans who only want to lose the war for the US. Fox's Sean Hannity, moderating the "discussion" between her and a Young Democrats woman whose name I forget, lets her say her piece without interruption. Yet he will not allow the Democrat woman to finish, constantly speaking over her, saying things like "So you just want to lose the war!"
Is it just our biases that make us see these things so differently? Hannity and Coulter seem very far from tolerant, listening, accepting folks to me. How can Adam see them so differently?
And about Hilary Clinton, Adam himself says he sees her as arrogant and untrustworthy. He thinks whatever she says on Iraq comes from a desire to score political points, whereas he believes George Bush acted on Iraq out of conviction and genuine human outrage.
"Silly", "crazy" ... "arrogant", "untrustworthy": what's the difference? To what degree was he thinking similar things about me, to what degree had I been similarly contradictory?
Yet we get along well, Adam and I. Understand each other. And I think this is the reason: despite our differences, there's an undercurrent of respect. No name-calling, no "you're intellectually dishonest" or more. I've seen plenty of that, and I know the frustrating and empty wasteland to which it leads. Adam and I? Well, certainly I left the coffee shop feeling we had formed a bond that we'd like to strengthen in the future. Mostly because I sensed he felt the same.